The Catskill Mountain House, 1823-1963
I stand on Thomas Cole’s farmhouse porch
at the Catskill interchange and see a treeless scar
that marks the railway’s climb up the escarpment.
Carriages stalled on that incline, horses died,
the gentry got contusions until Otis’ cable cars
hoisted guests 2,200 feet, lifted them up
a hair’s breadth from Heaven with dignity
and dry boots. Under the hotel’s Greek portico
if skies were clear they could admire
how far they’d come by sloop or steamer
upriver from Manhattan to Catskill Landing until
a bell jangled supper and balsam-scented sleep.
Cole didn’t invent the great hotel,
its matchless view, its 13 Corinthian columns.
He invented the need for it. Shinning chasms,
rucking under ledges to rise at dawn, he set out
his easel, flute, canvas chair, bladders of pigments
to trace silvery firs beside the yellow water lilies.
Unpainted, the forest was howling anarchy;
he gave it gravity, vowing If I can fix in time
that moment before the ax falls, before
the Iron Horse shrieks, before a shadow is cast
on the land, I can animate Eden. Burnt-over fields,
stinking tanneries? Cole didn’t see them. Only
the granite outcrops of a devil’s tombstone,
clenched boulders of a preacher’s iron jaws.
Garreted on Greenwich Street, the forest floor rose
in burnt umber, skies in Antwerp blue,
skiffs cadmium red, lakes ultramarine. Cole brushed in
feather ferns, rustic huts, an Indian scout.
Even copper-hearted barbarians deserve
their metaphors and tickets up the rock face.
Soon they were baiting caged black bears,
carving their names in rock. Actresses,
presidents, plantation owners, verse scribblers
came to be awed and suck pure air.
Forget the Continent. Here was genus loci,
Natty Bumppo’s backyard with a stag
in the clearing and rainbowed falls.
I stand on the precipice that hangs above
our old-new world. No colonnades affront infinity;
no roast duck and Madeira; no ballrooms draped
with balsam firs—all vanished but the view
that draws pilgrims with dome tents and grills.
Oil tankers crowd the river, trucks meet them
at the Landing where Cole himself once landed
on the forest’s ragged hem, the crook-
backed mountains bidding him west.